HOUSTON -- Summer is nearly year round in southeast Texas, so it should be no surprise that the free stuff to see and do in the sprawling metropolitan area of the nation's fourth-biggest city focuses on the outdoors.
But that doesn't mean you have to surrender to the area's infamous heat and humidity, particularly brutal in August, to enjoy attractions that will only cost the time and gasoline to get there.
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The Menil Collection: Banker John de Menil and his wife, Dominique, heiress to the Schlumberger oil field company fortune, over decades amassed a collection of nearly 16,000 art objects that since 1987 have been on display at the Houston museum that bears their name. The collection features pieces by European and American masters plus ancient and modern works from around the world. The museum's companion Rothko Chapel provides visitors with a tranquil meditative environment that welcomes 60,000 visitors a year.
Miller Theatre: The Houston Symphony, Houston Grand Opera and Houston Ballet headline an extensive performing arts lineup that's been using the Miller Theatre stage since the 1920s and now draws nearly a half-million spectators annually to the 7.5-acre site in Hermann Park, just east of the world-famous Texas Medical Center. Tickets for the recently renovated covered seating area are available early in the day for that evening's performance and concertgoers also can bring a blanket and sit on the grass hill immediately behind the seats.
The Water Wall: A couple of blocks south of the Galleria, Houston's largest shopping experience, and in the shadow of the 902-foot Williams Tower, the city's most visible skyscraper outside downtown, this 64-foot-high semicircular fountain arguably is Houston's most photographed site. Visitors can stand inside the wall that recirculates 11,000 gallons of water each minute. Besides providing cooling mist, the visual effect is surreal. A night visit inside the lit fountain gives it an entirely different look and experience.
Port of Houston Boat Tour: Since 1958, the 95-foot-long Motor Vessel Sam Houston has been taking visitors on a 90-minute cruise of the Houston Ship Channel, home to one of the world's busiest ports and among the world's largest petrochemical complexes. The boat holds up to 100 people who can sit in its air-conditioned seating area or stand on the deck to take full advantage of the port's sounds and smells. There's no charge, but reservations are required.
Galveston: Houston's getaway to the Gulf of Mexico. OK, it's not the glistening white Gulf beaches of the Florida Panhandle, but it's only an hour's drive south on Interstate 45. Park on the Galveston Seawall and you're there. And as a bonus, one of the best free trips in all of Texas is just off the east end of the sea wall, where the Bolivar Ferry carries vehicles and passengers the couple of miles back and forth across Galveston Bay 24 hours a day. Watch for dolphins and feed the sea gulls.